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After years of relative stagnation, Nikon's P-series is back. The Coolpix P7000, released late last year, now has a little brother - the P300. Both in terms of specification and styling, the P7000 was designed to rival Canon's Powershot G-series, but the P300 is pitched a little lower.

Although at first glance it looks a lot like the Canon Powershot S95 and Olympus XZ-1, the P300 is a significantly different camera in a couple of important ways. It offers higher resolution, at 12MP rather than the 10MP common in that class. It also offers Full HD video (1080p as opposed to 720p), but its true colors are betrayed by a lower price-point, a smaller sensor (1/2.3" as opposed to 1/1.6" or 1/1.7"), and the inability to record RAW files.

And so, despite obviously being designed to appeal to the same audience as the Panasonic LX5 and Canon S95, the Coolpix P300 is actually a lot closer in specification terms to a camera like the Canon SD 4000 IS/IXUS 300 HS. Like the SD 4000 IS, the P300 offers excellent build quality and manual control in a genuinely compact body, for less cash than the larger sensor, RAW-enabled Powershot S95, or its 'big brother' the Coolpix P7000. The P300's lens is optically stabilized, covers a useful 24-100mm (equivalent) range, and is impressively fast at wideangle, if unspectacular at the long end (f/1.8-4.9). The rear 3in LCD screen is bright and contrasty with 921k dots - the same specifications as the screens in Nikon's mid-range and top-end DSLRs.

Key features

  • 12 megapixel BSI (back side illuminated) CMOS sensor (1/2.3in)
  • ISO 160-3200 at full 12MP resolution
  • 1080p High Definition video mode
  • 24-100mm (equivalent) f/1.8-4.9 lens with optical stabilization
  • PASM modes
  • Twin control dials - one top, one rear
  • Built-in stereo microphone

The 'big' new feature introduced in the Coolpix P300 is 1080p, 'Full HD' video. Full HD is still relatively rare in compact cameras, and it is something that none of the P300's 'high-end' peers currently offer. In most other respects, the P300's specification sheet is comparable to our expectations of the latest compact cameras. At the equivalent of 24mm, its lens is wider than either the Canon S95's or Olympus XZ-1's 28mm equivalent, but is slightly shorter than both at the tele end. It is worth noting that although it boasts a very fast maximum aperture of f/1.8, this gets a lot smaller as the lens is zoomed in. In fact, f/1.8 is only available with the lens set to its very widest focal length.

Beside two of its most obvious competitors (in control terms) the similarities between the P300 and Canon S95 are obvious. The two cameras are almost exactly the same size, and offer similar control layouts. The Olympus XZ-1 is slightly larger in all dimensions, mainly as a result of the larger lens required to offer its wider-aperture and larger imaging circle to light its larger sensor.
From behind, the main difference between the P300 and S95 is the direct movie shooting button of the former. As you can see from looking at all three cameras in this view, the rear control layout has become almost 'standard'.

A fast lens usually means greater control over depth of field, but here too, all is not what it seems. Because, all other things being equal, a smaller sensor means less control over depth of field, the P300 doesn't match up to its high-end competitors despite seeming to offer a similar maximum aperture range. Also, for good depth of field control the lens really needs to be fast at the telephoto end, and the P300's isn't. So don't expect to be able to get the same sort of blurred backgrounds with the P300 as you can with the Olympus XZ-1, for example.